Miklos Banffy: Transylvanian Trilogy 2

November 9, 2013

With the second volume, I’m truly hooked. It’s a good translation, in that it reads well, fluently and effortlessly; occasional words in other languages are left in and translated, so the feel of somewhere different is enhanced. It’s a shame that the maps (included in the first volume) are both poor and inaccurate; a couple of good maps, and also a chapter to explain clearly and succinctly the outlines of the area’s politics in the early years of the last century would have been very helpful.

The similarity in scope and intent with Mahfouz’ Cairo Trilogy has become much more evident as I’ve made my way through the second volume. It’s a page-turner, but gripping, too: I find myself caring about the characters and what happens to them, as they sleepwalk their way to catastrophe: by the end of the volume we are in 1910 and the clouds are definitely gathering on the horizon. The short-sightedness of the self-satisfied aristocrats can be breath-taking, and the venality of the new middle-classes and more educated people as they exploit the peasantry and ethnic minorities, as well as pull the wool over the eyes of their masters, the aristocrats seems to leave no-one any way out.

The novel clearly overlaps with the life story of the author – this becomes clearer through occasional footnotes by one of the translators, who is a descendant of Banffy’s. Much of what I have read over the years has left me puzzled about the melting-pot of nationalities and races in Central Europe, and their inextricable fates: clearly all was not well under the wing of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This let to the new, post-Versailles nation-states, which in many ways were not much better (see, for example, the recent historical research of Timothy Snyder), and ultimately to the ethnic cleansing at the end of the Second World War, and again during the more recent Balkan conflicts. At the moment I have the picture that people can live together if they do not have any real consciousness of themselves as a ‘nation’ or ‘race’, but that there are always people who will play upon differences for their own, often sinister ends. I certainly don’t know what the answer to any of these issues is; what I do know is that the issues are a great deal more complex than Western nations seem capable of understanding.

Where have these novels been? Originally published in the late 1930s, they seem to have vanished for decades: looking the author up in my usual reference books drew a blank in all three; only wikipedia has information.

I’m well into the final volume now…

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